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13 August, 2008

Experiencing racial discrimination first hand

...Unfortunate incident had happy ending

In adding a story to my reflections of home town Dresden web site this morning, I hesitatingly made reference to "racial discrimination". I say hesitatingly, because the subject is still very much a sore spot for long-standing residents of the community.

Just as in other countries where slavery was instituted, emancipation in Canada did not come easily. Even after slavery was abolished, Blacks and Aboriginal peoples found themselves confined to the bottom rung of society and denied their most basic rights. It was actually not until 1960 that racial segregation was rendered illegal in Canada. Fortunately, our country has changed dramatically in the past five decades and as citizens we are all equal before the law. Communities across the country now reflect and celebrate their cultural and ethnic diversity but, as I say, this type of stability and social harmony did not come easily overnight.

When I was growing up in Dresden, Black people were not allowed in restaurants nor in local hair cutting establishments. Bear in mind that this was at a time when Black people made up one third of the town's population, so we are not talking about a mere handful of people. Add to this the fact that Dresden was/is the site of Rev. Josiah Henson's world famous Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Many of my closest friends were Black and I was fully aware that they and their families were victims of discrimination, yet we never talked about it. We simply pretended it did not exist, although that was easy for me because my life was not being adversely affected.

Little by little, Black kids would occasionally join Whites in a couple of the local restaurants but they still could not order anything. I well remember a Black friend (we'll call him Joseph) sitting with me at a soda counter after a baseball game one evening. We were hot and thirsty. Spontaneously and without thinking, I'm convinced, Joseph said to the waitress behind the counter "I'll have a butterscotch milk shake!"

"I'm sorry, Joseph, but I can't serve you" said the waitress who was also a school friend. I could not believe what had just transpired. All I could say to Joseph was "It's hot in here, let's go outside." Typically, not another word was ever spoken about the incident.

Two years later, Joseph and the waitress were married. How ironic is that?

I talked to both of them a few months ago. They're still happily married, comfortably retired and proud grandparents. I also met them several years ago together in a restaurant. Definitely a case where times have changed for the better.

But the hurt lives on, quietly and deeply, I'm sure. It has to!

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